Peter Ackroyd

I never made it through Ackroyd’s London. Reading this absorbing, wonderfully pitched biography of Blake, I realize that was less to do with Ackroyd’s writing, and more to do with my preference for history via the definite line of a specific someone’s life, rather than ranging across time with less of an anchor in space. Considering Blake’s artistic focus on the human form, his spiritual ideal of the Divine Human, and his Gnostic aversion to ‘The Sea of Time and Space’, I can see London’s prophet nodding in sympathy.

Thinking through Blake’s life and art via this narrative, I realize how ambivalent I’ve become about my one-time unequivocal enthusiasm for pagan immersion in the “vegetated world” that Blake was—for the most part—so dismissive of. I opened my Dionysian celebration of bodily existence with a Blake quote, one which is perfect in this context. But Blake, while being quite forceful and unambiguous in immediate expression, was a little more complex at the larger scale. The genius that pointed us to “heaven in a wild flower” also remarked, “Nature & Fancy are Two Things & can never be joined; neither ought any one to attempt it, for it is Idolatry & destroys the Soul.” Generally, Blake maintained an avid dualism, giving preference for the eternal realm of Spirit over this fallen material world.

While Ackroyd gives us excellent commentary on Blake’s thought, he wisely steers clear of the mire that is often encountered in trying to resolve the dilemma of the avowed anti-nature Gnostic who can still sense the divine emanating from the song of a lark. I suspect that the categories involved are simply related in a different way in the states of soul that Blake was accustomed to. I also sense that Alan Watts’ analysis of the Hindu concept of Maya, in which he sees not a dualist rejection of the physical world, but an attack on the mental habits of the materialist that reify worldly, social life, and attach us too closely to the experience of matter, is relevant here.

There I go, off into philosophy. Wasn’t I reviewing a book here? Perhaps it’s just that there’s not much more to say about it. This is probably the best biography I’ve read since Ted Morgan’s brilliant Literary Outlaw brought the life of Uncle Bill Burroughs into such vivid relief. Ackroyd is undoubtedly the ideal biographer for Blake: endlessly erudite and endlessly warm, clearly enamoured of his subject’s work, but not blindly. Blake’s living character is vivified through historical detail, sensitive commentary, and judicious selections from all he has left us (the quotes from Blake’s marginalia in books of others he read, often wonderfully fierce and indignant, are priceless). His devoted wife Catherine, while she inevitably (as in life) remains in the background, is ultimately celebrated as in integral part of this visionary’s existence. That their deaths at the end—each in their way slipping joyfully into the spiritual world they caught glimpses of in life—are deeply moving is testament to the success of this fine book.